IT certainly can be a fatal problem if all of the group agrees that some incorrect choice is the correct one. This was a very big problem in some companies where the senior members decisions were never challenged. It is also a problem in companies where the person in charge will challenge the skills of all who offer alternative ideas.
My method for handling things that don't seem to be correct is to ask for a more detailed explanation, since I don't completely understand how the proposed plan will work. If there is an explanation as a result, the error may become obvious to the one offering the explanation, or, if my understanding was incorrect, it is corrected. The benefit of this approach is that most of the time it does not place the other party in a defensive position, since it is not seen as a challenge.
For those times when unrealistic completion times are chosen, I generally ask about the details of how the required assets and resources will be made available. On many occasions it becomes clear that some aspect of the project has been overlooked and left out. So pointing out the additional efforts required will tend to make the completion time estimates more rational. But sometimes the completion time is not based on reality, but simply on whims of those running the show, in which case rational thinking is useless.
I think some of the responses to this article are becoming "groupthink". There isn't usually just one problem but many. Yes, most of us think we can solve any problem. And maybe some of us can (not just engineering problems). But sometimes we get the question wrong. If there are multiple problems and we identify one, such as groupthink, then we are already on our way to at least partial failure.
Most of the time the "leaders" are simply bureaucrats, or even worse, engineers that have become bureaucrats. Even independent engineers have been conditioned over the years to give in to these leaders for survival. I think it's gotten worse over the years. We need to become the new leaders without becoming part of the problem. That is the next challenge for engineers whether they go into the field or not. I believe we are the best thinkers. And group thinking is not bad as long as you know why and what you are thinking, both the pros and the cons.
I had to attend meetings and participate in group activies that were designed to impress upon us how a group will invariably make better decisions than an individual. Now you're saying that could be wrong?
Next you'll be saying it was a waste when we were forced to read "Who moved my cheese?" and write a report on it (expecting it to be praise for the book and the management that had the foresight to make us read it).
Not to mention the required reading of "Faster, Better, Cheaper" about the Mars Pathfinder mission, where we learned that it was expected to fire 10% of your staff so you could achieve your goals. Although it seemed the next two missions were failures and made the success of the first a statistical fluke...BUT I WAS EXPECTED TO EMBRACE THAT MANTRA!
Golly. Now you're saying I was right all along... :-)
I think one of the issues is that Engineers typically work at solving a single problem rather than developing an entire project. With Navistar, the Engineers were solving each problem as it occurred , rather than looking at the entire project and seeing that it was never going to succeed.
I think that was a smart person. Of course, it takes a lot as a manager to allow people to make mistakes. they can be costly. They will delay the end result. But you are right because they can be turned into a positive.
I've worked at a company where unreasonable deadlines were set knowing that the team would fail with the idea that they would finish faster with an aggressive target that could not be met than with a realistic one that could be met. I left that company. Basically for silly policies like that. I think giving people a reasonable target with a nice pat on the back will get better results.
I think there's a lot to be said for creating a healthy environment that will allow for a little friction while working on projects. Sometimes managment can create groupthink by shutting down those that don't tow the line.
Great article, Dave. I used to know a high-level executive who often said "I like positive people." I suppose that's true of all of us, but in his case, he really meant, "Dont disagree with me." Not surpisingly, his meetings were always filled with positive comments, even when he was clearly wrong.
When troubleshooting, it is necessary to make a lot of mistakes. There are many times that trial and error is all that you have. Some of the smartest people that I know learned from past mistakes to make new designs better.
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